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Home » Archives » January 2007 » He Got in Trouble for Telling Menotti Jokes. Really? How Naughty Were They?
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01/31/2007: He Got in Trouble for Telling Menotti Jokes. Really? How Naughty Were They?

Let's go to the mailbag, shall we? Such an interesting question just arrived from Eric in San Mateo. He wants to know the difference between a "high-brow" and a "low-brow" joke. Ooh, interesting!

Well, at least as I've heard it used, this is a distinction that pretty much has to do with the set of cultural knowledge you need to have to get the joke. "High-brow" jokes presuppose a familiarity with high culture. "Low-brow" jokes assume you know your pro-wresters.

Frasier was the happy pasture of high-brow jokes. Remember how they used to use those title cards between scenes? In one episode one of the cards read "A Mall and the Night Visitors." In order to get the joke, viewers had to have heard of the Menotti opera "Amahl and the Night Visitors." That's pretty high-brow.

A short-lived comedy that I loved as a child was called "Friends and Lovers," about a concert bass player played by Paul Sand. He entered one scene while descending from the stage brushing at his sleeves. He explained that the last movement had been so passionately performed that he was "covered in conductor hair." The fact that you need some familiarity with the head-shaking habits of orchestral conductors -- well, that makes it high-brow. The same joke could be altered to be about a heavy-metal band (front row fan exclaims excitedly that he's covered in lead guitarist hair) and now it's low-brow. See the difference? Johann Sebastian Bach = high-brow. Sebastian Bach = low-brow.

I'm sure you're seeing by now that this distinction doesn't line up neatly with good jokes or bad jokes. It also doesn't line up with smart jokes and dumb jokes. You can make smart jokes that require knowledge of low culture and dumb jokes that rely on knowing high culture.

And sometimes it gets really complicated. When Niles Crane pretends to be interested in a book called "The Legends of NASCAR," and pronounces it Nazkhar, as if it were an Arabian citadel, is that high-brow or low? It requires that the audience know what NASCAR really is, and that they laugh at Niles for not knowing it... which seems low-brow. On the other hand, his apparent assumption that it's some little-known exotic location -- well, it's a kind of high-brow assumption. A puzzler!

If you've got characters making any joke that reflects a cultural background that you're not very familiar with -- high, low or whatever, make an effort to get it right. If your character is supposed to know about opera, don't make every one of their jokes refer to fat German women just because you've only heard of Wagner. Similarly, if your character is supposed to know about cock-fighting, don't just make up a bunch of likely-sounding terminology. Do some research. Also, the jokes will get better. Specificity is one of the main ingredients in humor, so the more you know about a subject, the more likely you are to be able to be funny about it, whether your own brow is naturally low, high or uni.

(In other mailbag news -- I'm very sorry Jackie in Australia, but I'm not allowed to read the writing you sent to me. Thank you though, for *wanting* to send it to me!)

Lunch: hot udon soup with mentaiko (spicy cod roe)

UPDATE: Menotti died the day after I posted this. How weird is that?


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January 2007

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